Understanding organic, biodynamic, sustainable, or natural wines

Article written for Taste & Flair Magazine 2020

In a time where we are extremely conscious of separating our waste, looking after our natural environment and our health more than ever, it has become normal to ask what chemicals are in the foods we consume, yet wine seems to have sadly fallen a little by the wayside.

74% of US wine consumers would consider buying sustainably produced wine in the future according to a study reported by Forbes in mid-2019. A similar report focusing on the consumer in general, indicates that 92% of Americans will be more likely to trust a company that supports social or environmental issues, yet many of the best-known, oft-premium wineries that qualify to affix eco-friendly labels on their bottles, refuse to do so, leaving the consumer in the dark as to which wines are organic, sustainable, biodynamic or mass produced with a number of added chemicals and a disregard for the environment. This gives an impression that either the wine world is not in touch with the market’s wishes, or are seemingly nonchalant about the environment, when in fact it cannot be further from the truth.

Every time I meet with winemakers, I’m impressed with the enthusiasm they talk about the vineyards, the grapes, the soil and the environment. Why shouldn’t they?  Winemaking is not dissimilar to farming, where both require many long hours spent tending to the vines to grow the best possible produce they can. I cannot help comparing to the loveable Maltese farmer who went viral with his passionate phrase “my life is potato” some time back. Just like his love for potatoes was almost palpable, a real wine-makers passion for growing the best possible grapes is truly remarkable. But if by their own admission the best wine is only produced from the best possible grapes, surely all the best and most premium wines are natural, biodynamic or at the very least organic?

The reality however is that only about 5% of wine consumed is in fact organic, with the EU being the top producer making up to 90% of the global organic wine growing area, with Spain leading the way followed by Italy and France. Growth in the organic sector has been slow but steady (it stood at 1% in 1999) but getting an organic wine certification is far from a fast & easy process. In fact, in the EU it takes a minimum three years conversion period in the vineyard before the producer may label his wine as ‘wine made from organically grown grapes’. Moreover, to produce ‘organic wine’, which is distinctly different, the winemaker would also require certain organic practices to be followed through in the winemaking process and which is not covered by the EU legislation.  So organic wines can be made from certified organically grown grapes, but to be a fully “organic” wine, you must not only use organically grown grapes, but also ensure there are no added sulfites (though naturally occurring sulfites will still be present) besides restrictions on other additives.

To label wines as organically grown or certified organic, a winery must fulfil all the requirements stated by its home country’s governing body of agriculture (which are in fact different from country to country) and to make things further confusing for the consumer, that either because of the required extra costs or due to the many hoops to jump through, some wineries claim to abide by fully organic practices without pursuing the certification. This means that some wines are said to be organically produced but without anything to show for it.

In truth three years from deciding to produce an organic wine within the regulations to being fully certified is highly unlikely. The vineyard would have needed much more time to convert their practices and I know for a fact that most, if not all premium wine producers are constantly experimenting with areas of their vineyards to convert to organic practices. Changing to a fully sustainable vineyard, experimenting with different natural occurring yeasts, limiting the number of additives, and other changes in the winemaking techniques all have consequences to the outcome of the wines.  Though technically the wine should improve in quality, it takes a lot of time and money to perfect whilst continuing the business of making good quality wine year in year out. Most large wine producers have been selecting parcels of their vineyards to experiment with organic and sustainable techniques for several years, till they are comfortable to apply it to the whole vineyard. Gaia Gaja, daughter of Angelo Gaja, who now runs the Gaja Vineyards in Piedmont recently explained that dedicating areas for experimenting is not new in winemaking, and is one of the fundamentals in improving wine and even as a means of preparing for (as opposed to reacting to) the global warming situation.

A prominent, romantic Bordeaux winemaker told me that it is not the organic certification that is the ultimate goal, but to grow the best possible grapes for the foreseeable future, and this can only be achieved if you treat the land with ultimate respect. Certification is secondary. Though this sounds rather idealistic, the owner of Château Palmer, one most prestigious Château in Bordeaux, explained that there is a general consensus that the eco-friendly, green-labels depicting organic, biodynamic or natural are too often perceived as ‘cheap’ or ‘mass produced’ . Worse still, if the ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ label is what sells the wine, it then suggests quality is not up to scratch and that in itself is a disservice to the land he explained.

Though it sounds like a passionate argument, could it be that the owner of this prestigious vineyard was making excuses for their failure in getting any form of green certification? In this case, this particular vineyard was certified fully biodynamic in 2017, yet the certification remains relatively unimportant in their marketing strategy proving that he was being honest after all.  

Many famous Biodynamic wineries don't mention it on the label such as Chateau Palmer (inset)

Biodynamic winemaking is a few giant green steps beyond general organic wine and are in effect their own ecosystem without any allowance for synthetic chemical interference of any kind. Unfortunately, with a reputation of being a “hippie, dippy, wacky commune back to the Earth zeitgeist” due to their controversial compost methods and due to the fact that they do not have any legal definition, many winemakers fall short of the biodynamic practices, and those that do can hardly shout out about it. The reason may be that in order to acquire a biodynamic certification there are certain principles that, in my opinion, veer on borderline ‘excessive’ such as the application of doses of homeopathic compost including fermented cow manure and quartz ground to a powder are to be buried in cow horns or other animal parts such as intestines before use. They are then only applied to the vineyard according to the celestial calender.  

To most, myself included, this sounds more like some religious cult out of a horror movie than a typical biodynamic practice, and is thus understandably followed by only the most devoted of biodynamic practitioners. You’d be forgiven in thinking that only a few odd-looking bottles at the top of the supermarket shelf are biodynamic and that most of them do not make the cut at a Michelin starred restaurant when in fact some of the most premium wine producers in the world including the super-premium Cristal Champagne by Louis Roederer, Domaine Leroy, Domaine Zind Humbrecht, Château Durfort-Vivens, Château Palmer as well as the most expensive wine in the world Domaine de la Romanée-Conti are fully biodynamic, but I have yet to see any noticeable biodynamic label on their bottles and it is only their real fans that would know it.

Another eco-friendly word that is often tossed around quite a bit is ‘sustainability’. This differs from organic or biodynamic in that the winemaker engages in eco-friendly practices such as eliminating waste and pesticides, replanting crops and trees harvested, reducing their carbon footprint, recycling packaging, conserving wildlife and generally avoiding the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. Many vineyards work towards sustainability before continuing in their progress towards organic or biodynamic to add to their credentials, whilst others feel that stopping at being sustainable is enough. Sonoma County in California is one of the most sustainable areas in the world with 97% of farming acreage being sustainable (according to the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association) and France and Italy have been following suit. The Bordeaux Wine Trade is working to make 100% of its vineyards sustainable, with more than 60% of them already reported as engaged in meaningful environmental processes in 2017. This environmental process often includes bat colony protections (which also helps preserve the vines without using pesticides), and changes in cultivation practices such as less grass mowing to allow helpful pollinating insects to thrive.  Having recently returned from Bordeaux, sustainability is the buzz word most commonly used by the vintners who have not warmed up to organic or biodynamic processes, and I have yet to visit a good quality vineyard who haven’t adopted any sustainable processes.  

At the other end of the spectrum there are the natural wines. These wines have so far defied all attempts to create a legal definition and some supporters happily state that it is a bit of an anti-establishment movement. Isabelle Legeron (Master of Wine), founder of RAW Wine Fair, said that “strictly speaking, natural wine is pure, fermented grape juice” with nothing added. The aim is to “bottle a drink that is alive [and] full of the naturally occurring microbiology that existed on the grapes and in the cellar too”. There is a general consensus that all ‘natural’ wines are grown from organic grapes, but not all organic wines are natural. Different to organic wines, natural wines, do not permit the addition of yeasts or sulphites, fining agents or filtration and pasteurization. Naturally, these low-intervention wines are frequently brownish in colour due to oxidation, cloudy when not filtered and often show flavours of bruised apples. It takes a fantastic winemaker to make a wine with minimal intervention and though there are some great showings such as the young winemaker Arianna of  ‘Occhipinti’ wines, most give me a hard-enough time to get through a glass, let alone a bottle.  Definitely an acquired taste and surely potential for some great new wines, but I still feel its early days for natural winemakers.

I am quite sure that the confusing terms, different requirements from country to country and rather rigid requirements has made it quite difficult for winemakers to receive certifications and for the consumer to weave through the definitions and understand what they want and what is available. The unfortunate perception of organic wines needing the label to sell themselves further complicates matters, but in general most wines of a good quality are in fact greener than you may think - if not already biodynamic, they may be looking towards the organic route or at the very minimum experimenting towards achieving sustainability. I fear ‘value’ wines found on the cheaper end of the spectrum more susceptible to totally disregarding the environment for money, but that too can be an unfair generalisation. Unfortunately, on taste alone it is difficult for even the most advanced palates to know which are environmentally friendly wines, however, I have yet to hear of wineries going back on organic practices. I am confident enough to say that to keep competing on premium levels, quality wines that have not been looking towards sustainability and green processes will struggle to keep up with the improving palate of the consumer in the near future.